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Is Fulham’s penalty curse finally over?

22nd December 2023

© Dara Curran

In his debut piece, Tom Sizeland recounts our recent woes from the spot – and asks if a new dawn has finally arrived.

The awarding of a penalty kick should bring with it a brief moment of excitement, hope, and optimism. For Fulham fans though it’s long been endured as a feeling of fear, dread, and inevitable disappointment.

No matter how much time we were given to psychologically prepare for it, Aleksander Mitrovic’s drawn-out departure was gut-wrenching. But with that came a release of the burden of penalty anguish.

An unwanted record

To put last season’s woes into perspective, Mitro broke the record for the most penalty misses in a single Premier League season – his four surpassing the previous record of three, held by Wayne Rooney, Gylfi Sigurdsson and Ruud van Nistelrooy. Across Europe’s top-five leagues, Fulham’s conversion rate of 55.56% was the worst for clubs who were awarded nine or more penalties.

No wonder Fulham fans tend to have a Balotelli-esque feeling of ‘why always me?’. All three of our defeats at the end of the previous campaign were determined by penalties – questionable refereeing decisions led to decisive penalties converted by Erling Haaland and then Mohamed Salah, before we signed off in a way that ultimately defined our campaign – a Mitrovic penalty miss that would’ve put us 1-0 up against Manchester United.

It’s not just Mitro, of course. There was Aboubakar Kamara’s infamous dispute with the Serb and that Claudio Ranieri interview – not to mention Ademola Lookman’s last-minute Panenka failure. We seemed to be dogged by failure from the spot.

On the up

We’re not even halfway into this season yet, but I think we can say it quietly Fulham fans: we’re quashing our fears of the penalty kick.

It was difficult enough that we had to face Spurs in the second round of the Carabao Cup this year – they were usually European-tied at that stage of the competition. We of course scored early on, but then Kenny Tete’s boot fell off and Richarlison headed in his first goal of the season and we were really up against it. And then that overwhelming feeling of dread – it was going to penalties.

A massive cheer went up when we won the toss because it meant that the shootout would be happening directly in front of the Hammersmith end – the scene of our shootout defeat to Leeds two years ago. But the quality of our penalties was immense. A massive fist-pump from Joao Palhinha when he scored his, and I realised we were well up for it. Davidson Sanchez missed, while Tete, with two boots on, scored the winning penalty and somehow we’d won our first penalty shootout for almost nine years.

Domestic bliss

Fast forward a few months in the league and we were presented with our first penalty of the season in the league. It dawned on me that I had no idea who was about to step up take it. Could it be Andreas Pereira, who so coolly slotted one against Man City last season in Mitrovic’s absence? Or perhaps Raul Jimenez, desperately in search of a second Fulham goal, against his old club no less?

It doesn’t need any reminding that this was a crucial match and this was a pivotal moment. We’d won one of our last seven matches and frustrations were growing. We simply hadn’t been playing well enough and some of the players were starting to feel some heat from the fans.

And then Willian emerged to step up. Marco Silva endured far too much penalty disappointment last season not to have a plan in place. Clearly this was the man he’d entrusted.

In it went. And in the fifth minute of added time, he did it again. It’s debatable whether we should’ve been awarded either of them, but we deserve a bit of luck to fall on our side, don’t we? And with that, our penalty fears were slowly fading away…

Shoot-out for a semi

Back to the Carabao, and everything was against us going into this penalty shootout. In front of Everton’s favoured end, they also had the honour of going first. Throw in the momentum and buoyancy that comes with a late equaliser and Jordan Pickford’s antics before each kick, and I had this strange acceptance of defeat before a kick was taken.

Andreas Pereira, a player nowhere near his best at the moment, brought some brief relief with the composure he showed. But no man encapsulated our newfound calmness from 12 yards out than Antonee Robinson did.

He took emotion completely away from the situation and got his penalty done in the most efficient way possible. Not to sound too dramatic or anything, but with the emotional turbulence we’ve had to suffer with penalties in recent years, it felt like such a watershed moment for the way we need to get things done in moments like that.

Of course, Idrissa Gueye then missed, and Tosin Adarabioyo (sign the ting) scored. In just over a year we’ve gone from the despair of the worst penalty conversion rate in Europe, to the elation of a pair of match-winning penalties and a pair of penalty shootout victories that have led us on to an unprecedented League Cup run.

It might not be this weekend, it might not be the next. But at some point we will be watching another Fulham penalty. And we will all be watching from the stands or on our TVs with an elevated sense of belief and confidence – a far cry from the fear and dread of recent years past.

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